TV future cloudy for men’s hoops

Adam Fink

Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi has already heard from about 12 concerned fans via e-mail, telephone and letters, and he only expects the number of complaints and concerns to mount.

Today marks the official launch of Victory Sports One, an all-sports channel owned by Twins Sports, Inc.

The new network will carry Minnesota Twins baseball, Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Cloud State hockey and football, high school hockey and football games of the week, and ESPNews.

In addition, the network will carry 19 Minnesota’s men’s basketball games and other Big Ten basketball games.

But here lies the problem for Maturi and Gopher basketball fans across the state.

Victory Sports One is not on the majority of cable or satellite distributors systems throughout the state.

Time Warner Cable, the cable provider for the Minneapolis area, and many of other satellite and cable providers have reached a stalemate in negotiations with Victory Sports.

Unless an agreement is reached, only an estimated 20,000 people throughout the state will be able to see Gophers basketball on TV when the team begins its season Nov. 17 against Missouri-Kansas City.

Gophers impact

Gophers coach Dan Monson came to Minnesota five years ago and said one of the selling points was the TV deal in place.

Minnesota is one of the few schools to have almost all of its basketball games on television.

Also, Gophers basketball regularly has more viewers than the Wild or Timberwolves broadcasts, according to the Victory Sports Web site.

“Gopher basketball is more than the 15,000 people who come to Williams Arena,” Monson said. “Exposure is critical to our program. There are kids who have never been to a game but still know all about the team.”

Monson also said he uses the TV exposure as a recruiting tool. He contacted Maturi earlier in the week for an update.

“It’s very frustrating,” Monson said. “This is a setback. The future of our program depends on exposure.”

Started in 2001

ESPN Regional Television handles the entire Big Ten Conference’s local and regional syndication rights.

In September 2001, ESPN Regional reached a long-term deal with Victory Sports to televise Gophers basketball games.

Because Victory had not launched its own network yet, Gophers games were seen locally on Channel 45, a Hubbard Broadcasting station.

Last February, Victory Sports sent out agreements to the satellite and cable providers to get onto their systems. Since then, negotiations have moved slowly and ultimately reached an impasse.

Getting nowhere

Kevin Cattoor, Victory Sports president, said he exchanged phone calls with many cable and satellite companies over the past few months.

But Cattoor has found most providers unwilling to budge.

“We have given the providers what we believe is a fair package,” Cattoor said. “Many of the negotiations are occurring on the national level, and I don’t think these companies realize the impact of Gophers basketball in the region.”

For example, negotiations with Time Warner are based in New York, Comcast in Philadelphia and Charter Communications in St. Louis.

Cattoor said the offer asks for “just north of a $2 fee per subscriber. In comparison, last year Time Warner Cable and Fox Sports Net agreed on a fee in the same range Victory Sports currently seeks.

However, Fox Sports is more established and has built credibility.

From Time Warner Cable’s side, the problem isn’t just with the subscriber fee.

“The negotiations are not even close. There are many issues with their proposal,” Time Warner Cable President Mike Munley said, declining to elaborate.

Munley, who started at Time Warner in August after transferring from the Syracuse division, said he is a big Orangemen basketball fan and understands the impact Minnesota basketball has on the community.

However, he does not believe a deal will be in place by the Gophers’ opener.

“They aren’t giving us a fair deal,” Munley said, adding he hasn’t heard from any customers on the issue.

One holding point is where the channel will be found. Time Warner wants to put it on the digital-tier package, while Victory Sports wants to be included on the extended cable service.

The latter would provide more viewers, but Time Warner would have to increase its costs to customers to pay for the channel.

In addition, DirectTV told Cattoor it wouldn’t put the network on television because it would also have to pass along the costs to customers.

The future

Gophers basketball administrators can do nothing if the situation is unresolved.

Maturi said he hopes the Big Ten takes a situation such as this under consideration when it negotiates future contracts.

And Cattoor said there is no turning back. The station will not put any broadcasts on Channel 45 this season.

In addition, Cattoor said Victory Sports is not worried about advertisers concerns because it has long-term arrangements.

Maturi, Cattoor and Munley agree on one way to resolve the situation: customer complaints.

They said if enough fans get involved, it will force negations to move along quicker and an agreement to be reached.

“I hope they are making an effort,” Maturi said. “I can respect the business aspect of this, but our fans are the big losers.”